Internationalising Nonviolence: Reflections on the #RefugeeCrisis

(Originally published in Peace & Justice News, October 2015).

“Our borders are under threat. Hungary is under threat and so is the whole of Europe.” These were the words spoken by Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, on 21 September 2015, the day that his government granted additional powers to the army, authorising them to deploy rubber bullets, tear gas and net guns against refugees attempting to make the journey toward northern Europe.

Orban’s statement comes amidst a severe political crisis for European leaders, who have thus far failed to offer a coherent response to the escalating refugee crisis. It also happened to coincide with the International Day of Peace, throwing into sharp relief how measures intended to ‘control’ and ‘regulate’ human movement, far from generating peace, are exacerbating and worsening the situation facing the 300,000 persons who have fled conflict to arrive in Europe this year. In what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has described as a ‘world at war’, it is more pressing than ever that we consider nonviolent responses to forced migration.

In a previous issue of Peace & Justice News (June 2015), I described how European migration policy has become increasingly militarised during the past several decades, with the proliferation of border controls and the drastic expansion of punitive practices such as detention and forced deportations. These practices result in those people who do not meet the administrative requirements of state bureaucracies being branded “illegal”, effectively leading to their criminalisation and subsequent marginalisation. The scenes unfolding at Hungary’s border with Serbia, described by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, as ‘callous and illegal under international human rights law’, signal how this punitive logic will continue to operate, unless it is successfully challenged and transformed – to paraphrase Johann Galtung – ‘with empathy, without violence, and creatively’.

Unsurprisingly, the most generous responses toward the tens of thousands of displaced people trying to reach safety across Europe have emerged from citizens organising, ranging from community-led relief initiatives like Hauptbahnhof Wien (Train of Hope), which has been offering assistance to newly-arrived refugees at the Vienna train station, and much closer to home, the many collections which have taken place across Scotland to offer material assistance to those refugees currently surviving across the Channel in Calais. Recent weeks have also witnessed mass-vigils and demonstrations in cities and towns across Scotland and wider Europe, with national leaders coming under greater pressure to act decisively in light of the largest mass movement of people since the end of WWII.

In the immediate term, it seems imperative that a humanitarian passage be established, which would allow refugees to reach Europe without having to undergo the deadly Mediterranean sea-crossing, where an estimated 2,870 persons have died or gone missing during this year alone (see This would at least begin to reverse the process which has gradually eliminated nearly all other legal ways of reaching Europe to claim asylum.

However, any response to the refugee crisis which is sustained by a purely humanitarian impulse has clear limits in the long-term. We should – and we must – call upon national leaders such as David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon to increase the number of refugees which the UK welcomes, but this shouldn’t prevent us from asking whether coercive border-systems can ever be compatible with the sort of peaceful coexistence we seek by nonviolent means. As long as border controls remain in place, calls for a humanitarian response will be joined by other calls – such as those repeated by the leaders of Eastern European countries during recent days – to ensure that any assistance extended to refugees be simultaneously withheld from ‘economic migrants’.

When will we move beyond the outmoded definition of ‘refugee’ encoded in the post-war 1951 Convention, with its narrow focus upon those fleeing persecution? When will we start to recognise the increasing salience of what Alexander Betts terms ‘survival migration’, in a world where sharpening wealth and incomes inequalities are driven by the deregulation and restructuring of national economies, volatile markets and the burden of international debt? As the impacts of climate change begin to be felt more deeply across the planet, with key resources becoming scarcer and the international food system coming under strain, how can citizens in the North act in the awareness of their historically-accrued ecological debt to the South? As parts of our planet become less hospitable to human inhabitation, how can we who reside in more temperate regions organise to counter this dynamic, recreating the places where we live as havens of hospitality? Is the territorially-defined modern state, with its coercive apparatus, capable of responding nonviolently to these phenomena? If, as many have suggested, the refugee is to become the defining figure of the twenty-first century, then our charity won’t suffice; it is how we internationalise our solidarity that will really matter.


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